The noun "follower" is seldom used in Scripture for the people of God, possibly due to its frequent references to idol worshipers ( Deut 18:9 ; 1 Kings 18:18 ) or those following evil desires ( Eph 2:2-3 ; Jude 16-18 ). Words meaning "to follow" are used in both Testaments to highlight various aspects of discipleship.
For the Israelites, people of the promises and the covenant, to follow God was a matter of both trust and obedience ( Num 14:24 ; Joshua 14:8 ). It meant keeping the commandments ( Deut 33:3-4 ; 1 Kings 14:8 ) and obeying the prophetic word ( Dan 9:10 ).
New Testament believers were exhorted to follow the Lord's commandments ( 2 John 6 ) and sound doctrine ( 1 Tim 4:6 ; 2 Tim 1:13 ), much like the Israelites were told to observe the Law. The chief development of the concept came in the literal following of the incarnate Son of God and the new meaning this gave to discipleship.
Discipleship was initiated by the explicit command, "Follow me" ( Matt 4:19 ). All who wished to follow Christ were confronted by the narrow door of his absolute authority. To follow meant to submit to his personal lordship.
Following also meant complete identification with the life of Jesus. Forsaking family, home, and means of income ( Luke 5:11 ; 18:28-29 ), the disciples were to share Christ's life and ministry ( Luke 10:1-16 ).Ultimately Jesus required them to participate in the act of cross-bearing ( Mark 8:34-38 ).
The Johannine accounts depict the relational aspect of following Jesus. The disciples experienced his shepherding care ( John 10 ). Reversing the teacher-pupil relationship, Jesus washed their feet ( John 13:1-17 ), called them his friends ( 15:13-15 ), and commissioned them to do his work ( 20:21-23 ). Following not only meant submission and identification; it also meant intimacy.
Christ's ascension could have resulted in a loss of intimacy and concreteness in the experience of following him. The sense of intimacy was maintained, however, in the Holy Spirit, who is to believers everything Christ was for the disciples ( John 14:15-26 ).
Concreteness in discipleship was realized in a new note of imitation. Christians can imitate God's mercy in practicing forgiveness ( Eph 4:31-5:1 ; cf. Matt 18:23-35 ) or copy Christ's example of suffering wrong rather than inflicting it ( 1 Peter 2:20-23 ).
Furthermore, the church helped by models of mature discipleship ( Php 3:17 ). Frequently Christian leaders provide this example for their people ( Heb 13:17 ). Sometimes a group of believers furnish the pattern for the larger church ( 1 Thess 1:7 ; 2:14 ). Paul's invitation to his converts to follow him as he followed Christ ( 1 Cor 11:1 ; 1 Thess 1:6 ) expresses the ultimate challenge of Christian discipleship.
"To follow" in the Gospels and "to imitate" in the Epistles capture the essence of discipleship as submission to Christ's authority as Lord, as identification with the way of his cross, and as intimate sharing in his kingdom work and its final reward: eternal life ( Luke 18:30 ).
Luke L. Keefer, Jr.
See also Disciple, Discipleship
Bibliography. G. Kittel, TDNT, 1:210-16; W. Michaelis, TDNT, 4:659-74.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Follow, Follower'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".